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Academic highflyers?

Vera Kern / sri
December 16, 2013

The children of South Korean migrant workers are often regarded as role models of successful integration. But the reality is not so idyllic, says the second generation.

Maths problems on the board
Image: Fotolia

Jee-Un Kim's parents, like some 20,000 other South Koreans, migrated to Germany in the 1960s and 1970s following the South Korea-Germany labor recruitment agreement, signed by the two countries exactly fifty years ago on December 16, 1963.

There are currently 26,000 Koreans living in Germany, according to the Federal Statistical Office. The figure rises to between 30,000 and 40,000, after including the naturalized citizens.

It is a relatively small group of migrants. If anything, the story of the second generation of German-Koreans, to which Jee-Un Kim also belongs, is touted. It is a success story of people who are considered to be role models of integration.

But there are questions that Jee-Un Kim is tired of answering: Why do you speak German so well? Do you want to stay longer or will you go back to your country one day? The 38-year-old German-Korean, slightly taken aback, questions: "Did you mean to Berlin-Tiergarten or Berlin-Spandau?"

Jee-Un Kim is also tired of listening to expressions such as "hungry for knowledge" and "super integrated," in short, what sociologists call upward mobility. In the case of the Korean migrant workers' children, a leap has taken place from workers to academics in just one generation. However, Jee-Un Kim says: "The conclusion that academic success also means social integration is false."

Jee-Un Kim, Korientation Club. Jee-Un Kim, a second generation German-Korean and head of Korientation club. Her parents migrated from South Korea to Germany in the 1970s. (Photo: DW)
As a child, Jee-Un Kim found it uncomfortable when people addressed her as 'You Chinese!'Image: DW/V.Kern

Role models of integration?

But the narrative that German-Koreans are role models of integration bothers Jee-Un Kim. She says, categorizing some migrants as role models and others as problematic ones must stop as there isn't a big difference between the German-Koreans and some other immigrant groups, who are perceived as criminals and uneducated. "The problems faced by the immigrants are the same."

At first glance it sounds absurd to hear that people like Jee-Un Kim, who has been a successful lawyer and has degrees in law and culture management, face challenges in Germany.

Such impressive careers are not unusual among the second generation German-Koreans. On the contrary, about 70 percent of them have high school diplomas and most of them have acquired an academic degree. But does academic achievement alone leads to successful integration? Jee-Un Kim increasingly has her doubts.

That was not always the case. As a child, she found it uncomfortable when people addressed her as "You Chinese!" But she did not think about everyday racism. In Berlin, she had German school friends. She went to a high school and became what people today describe as "well-integrated."

Only later did Jee-Un Kim realize: "This is a structural problem and not just an experience that I have had as an individual."

"Discrimination does not vanish when people are exemplarily integrated," says You Jae Lee, a junior professor of Korean studies at the University of Tübingen. His research focuses on Korean migration, and he himself belongs to the so-called "1.5 generation," as they are known in the community. His family migrated to Germany when he was a child.

Although many second generation German-Koreans were able to build their ​​careers here, they would eventually realize that they get stuck and hit a glass ceiling, Lee told DW.

Twice as much effort

This is exactly what the parents were hoping for: whoever works twice as hard as their German classmates will be successful and will find acceptance in society. But despite their educational zeal, the children were not to forget their Korean origin. The childhood memories of many German-Koreans of the second generation are filled with weekdays spent in school, where they would strive to top the class, and weekends learning at the Korean schools.

The networks of the first generation of migrants were well developed; they used to meet in churches and sports clubs, at Korean classes and at social gatherings. South Korea, for the parents, was a longing and memory at the same time. "We are Koreans, and that is clear," said Jee-Un Kim's parents. The second generation, however, was born and brought up in Germany. Many of them have been to South Korea only for holidays and know about that country solely from the stories narrated by their parents.

Feeling German

"The second generation views itself as a member of German society and wants to contribute its share," said migration expert You Jae Lee, adding that this is an aspect that distinguishes it from the previous generation.

Furthermore, he says, the younger generation is much more heterogeneous, as they also marry non-Koreans, have friends outside the Korean community and even have their own associations such as "Korientation," a grass-roots organization of German-Asians, which actively takes part in exhibitions, film festivals and "integration summits."

20 trained South Korean nurses arrived as migrant workers in Munich, Germany, in the year 1970 and were greeted at the airport. (Photo: dpa)
Some 20,000 Koreans migrated to Germany in the 1960s and 1970s following the South Korea-Germany labor recruitment agreementImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But the German-Korean culture goes far beyond political debates and start-up companies set up by the second generation are playing a key part in this. Korean restaurants located in cities such as Berlin and Frankfurt have become trendy venues and South Korean corporations such as Samsung, LG, or Hyundai have long opened offices in Germany.

But this is not enough for Jee-Un Kim and You Jae Lee. They now hope that diversity becomes a part of the daily life of the grandchildren of South Korean miners and nurses and that the third generation of immigrants doesn't have to face questions about whether they are Korean or German.

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